Rhythm and Pews

Community music specialist Dr Jane Bentley is the founder of Art Beat, connecting people through shared music, resourcing networks, events and through participative workshops. In this article she explores the hospitality of music making and offers practical suggestions on how to use rhythm in worship.

Musical Hospitality: Rhythm and Pews…

DrumMiriam and the Israelites got down to it by the red-seaside; David harped on with it (offering us one of the first documented examples of music therapy); the Psalmists couldn’t get enough of it - one thing that the church has known for a long time is the power of music to build and sustain a community, and offer praise which goes beyond intellectual involvement, and comes from the heart and soul.

Let’s stick with Miriam for a little longer – recalling that ‘Miriam the prophetess, the sister of Aaron, took a timbrel in her hand; and all the women went out after her with timbrels and with dances’ (Exodus 15: 20). Before the organ, the guitar, or possibly even the harp, the song and praise of God’s people was offered to a rhythmic accompaniment. We’ve come a long way since, but perhaps there’s something to be rediscovered about such fundamental music making that might enable us to broaden our worship practice today.

This article examines the possibilities of accessible music and rhythm as a tool: to enable the music of a church community to be as inclusive as possible; to encourage participation; build community; to accompany the song of the people; illustrate scripture; and even act as a metaphor for old favourites such as 1 Corinthians 13...

Most of what is written here is drawn from experience, so perhaps a little autobiographical meander would be appropriate, for it’s the church that got me drumming – and sharing it with others…

... back in 1997, I went to Iona to live and work for the Iona Community, which was the start of my musical journey – and in particular, enabling music in others. Knowing that I was to be resident there for quite some time (three years, eventually), I brought a small djembe drum with me with the hope that I would learn how to play it on my time off – preferably on a remote beach – out of public earshot! Within a couple of months I was playing several times a week – not to the gentle accompaniment of waves and seagulls, but right in the heart of worship in a medieval abbey.

Why? Well it’s a lot to do with hospitality – in music and in worship. Unlike a regular church congregation, the assembled worshippers in the Abbey would be vastly different at every service – basically whoever was visiting the island at the time. Each evening, the congregation could consist of people from any denomination, or level of church involvement – or even those with no Christian experience or belief at all. This meant that we could take nothing for granted as far as a ‘canon’ of hymnody was concerned – a hackneyed old favourite for some of us could be entirely unknown to others.

Potentially, there’s nothing more exclusive than everyone else knowing the song that you don’t – reaffirming your status as an ‘outsider’. On Iona, the intent of worship was to be a place where God’s welcome was extended to everyone. This meant that if we were to practice a ‘musical hospitality’, then we had to offer a place for everyone within our music, rather than simply do music to, or for them.

Practically, this meant including simple, achievable songs – often taking a few minutes to teach them before the service; so that by the time they came round in worship they would be familiar. A number of the songs were from parts of the wider world Church – Africa, Latin America, India, and many of these songs benefited from a rhythmic accompaniment, which is how I began drumming in church.

I’ll never forget the time when after worship, I was approached by a man who shook me emotively by the hand saying that he was a visitor from South Africa. My first reaction was embarrassment – how could I teach an African song when there was the real deal right there. I felt such a fraud, then he said, quietly: “You’re singing our songs – I thought the world had forgotten us, but I’m going home to tell people that you’re singing our songs…” his words gave me a lump in my throat and have stayed with me ever since.

Just as an inclusive approach to song can offer an experience of welcome and incorporation (particularly at events where a larger proportion of non-church members may be present, such as at Advent or Christmas services), there may be other musical areas worthy of consideration: as a way of fully involving congregation members who may otherwise have less opportunity to participate. Nowadays I work making music together with a variety of different groups: from people in intensive psychiatric care; to adults and children with special needs; elderly people; organisational groups and refugees – all of whom speak the common language of music and particularly rhythm.

Contrary to popular belief (barely a workshop passes without someone saying “I’ve got no rhythm”), no previous experience is necessary in order to participate in the creation of successful music together – there’s something about the structure of rhythmic music which enables people to join in across vastly differing levels of ability. It’s not just for the ‘musical’ or ‘talented’ – it’s for everyone and can offer powerful experiences of inclusion and participation, particularly for people who for one reason or another, are often excluded from musical activity. It also depends on (and nurtures) skills such as listening, communication, self-control, self-expression, and group responsibility – surely things to be encouraged in any congregation?

Michael Hawn, Professor of Church Music at Perkins School of Theology, extends the idea of rhythm as a metaphor in his concept of ‘polyrhythmic worship’ – worship that ‘embodies both the depth and heritage of liturgical tradition and the breadth of diverse ways of praying with the world church and fresh movements of the spirit’ and which is capable of ‘being a bridge to those who live in the margins’.

Perhaps the use of rhythm may suit churches who would like to explore a musical hospitality congruent with a theology of welcome - where all have a place at the table, every voice counts, and each person has a unique gift within the music of a worshipping community. It’s not a call to abandon cherished musical practices, or contact ‘Organ removals ‘R Us’ – just an encouragement to reflect on how we could broaden our musical practice to extend a welcome to people who dance to a different beat.

Rhythm and Pews: Ideas for percussion in worship

Because rhythm appears simple, we can sometimes expect it just to ‘happen’ when we pass out instruments – and then get surprised or frustrated when things turn into cacophony. Just like any church music, rhythm benefits from being skilfully facilitated. Here are a few ideas to set the ball rolling...

Accompanying congregational singing

Try accompanying a hymn with a simple, yet steady beat – people hear the sound of their collective singing more, and will often sing up as a result.

Offer variation by dropping out the drum for a verse, changing pattern, changing volume, or layering in other percussion instruments one by one.

Many world church songs are made for rhythmic accompaniment!

A percussion group for worship

Don’t just hand the percussion to the toddlers! Include adults as well – if it sounds chaotic, play a very simple pulse yourself on the loudest instrument, and encourage them to follow. A riot of randomly jingling tambourines does neither the players (who are definitely capable of more), nor the congregation any favours.

There will inevitably be those who find it hard to keep time. Encourage your most rhythmically reliable people to keep a steady beat on the loudest instruments (metal instruments and drums). Try not to single out the less able, other than offering them encouragement. If someone is really struggling, playing a shaker offers a good way to participate without being overly distracting.

Use a mix of sounds – shakers, wood, metal, and drums. Have each instrument group play a different (simple) rhythm pattern – they will be helped by having a competent player to follow in each group. Layer them in one at a time – the overall rhythm will sound quite complex, even with the simplest parts. Encourage group members to use fewer notes – in different places – rather than more.

Creative reflection

Illustrate scripture with sound – imagine the possibilities of depicting the earthquake, wind and fire in 1 Kings 13 – or having opposing ‘drumming’ armies of Philistines and Israelites for David and Goliath (simply read the story and have each group drum when the word ‘Israelite’ or ‘Philistine’ is read out).

Rhythmic group music making can be a powerful metaphor for many concepts. Because people experience it directly, it makes a good base for discussion. Some themes might include:

  • co-operation: everyone playing a part; no one rhythm being the ‘best’
  • diversity: each instrument offering something different and valuable to the group – (lots of connections to 1 Corinthians 13 here!)
  • respectful communication: allowing space for others in the music – not playing all the notes yourself...


Arthur Hull’s book ‘Drum Circle Facilitation’ offers a great introduction to facilitated community rhythm.

Good robust instruments

Great workshops!

Jane is a freelance music enabler, specialising in music making for health and wellbeing. She can be contacted by email.